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Joseph Mills: ‘An Acquired Taste’ Gradually Draws New Collectors

Joseph Mills’s work has often been described as “an acquired taste” by his dealers.

NEW YORK—Joseph Mills’s work has often been described as “an acquired taste” by his dealers. The artist’s Surrealist-style photographs, photo¬montages and collages—often depicting such grim subjects as mentally ill people or clouds that allude to nuclear explosions—have gradually been gaining broader acceptance among collectors.

Washington, D.C.–based George Hemphill—Mills’s principal dealer since 1993—is forthright about the sometimes uneven sales record for the artist’s work. At the gallery’s most recent exhibition, earlier this year (Jan. 12–March 1), half of the 30 photographs on view sold at prices ranging from $2,000 to $10,000. “We did okay,” Hemphill told ARTnewsletter. “We don’t ever do overwhelmingly well with Joe’s work. After all these years, it still can be tough to sell.”

Mills’s work was an even tougher sell in Paris last November and December; a show of his photographs at the Galerie Nadine & Tom Verdier yielded no sales. However, Mills’s work often grows on collectors after they become more familiar with it, says director Tom Verdier. In May, for example, two works from that exhibition were sold to a private Paris-based collector, according to Verdier.

Even though collectors may be slow to accept Mills’s work, several pieces by the artist are already in the collections of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, among other institutions.

Of the 36 works on display early last year at New York’s Cohen Amador Gallery—the artist’s first solo show in Manhattan—several were sold “to New Yorkers and people on the West Coast,” says gallery director Paul Amador. “It’s a narrow market for Joe’s work. It’s tough work psychologically.”

Mills takes photographs or uses other photographers’ work, and mixes and matches elements to create collages. One image, for example, shows the head of an animal on a human body. Mills prints his images on old sheets of photographic paper, then coats them in layers of varnish, browning each one until it looks like a sepia print from the 19th century. He frequently mounts the prints on pieces of wood or metal.

The size of the prints themselves ranges from 11 by 14 inches to 36 by 36 inches. Images are printed in editions, but no two turn out exactly the same, Hemphill says. Some prints simply get thrown out because the varnish darkens the picture too much or the photographic paper isn’t up to the job. As a result, editions can be few as one or as many as four.

Mills has created series of prints on a single subject—“Inner City” is one; “Anarch” is another—that are compiled into a master set of around 70 images, priced at $120,000.

Hemphill says that there is a “core group” of buyers of Mills’ work that has grown in number over the years, and prices have risen steadily, if conservatively, since 1993. “The resale market has been virtually nonexistent,” he notes, adding that the only auction activity for Mills’s work has been at benefit sales.

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